As director of life safety for Trizec Properties Inc.’s Houston-based Western Region, Wright has made high-rise fire safety his vocation. “I have learned a lot about fire in my 19 years of involvement with high-rise fire safety training,” Wright says, citing training experiences through the Houston Fire Department, the National Fire Protection Association, and other organizations. “I have known several firefighters personally and professionally during that time, and I have had the benefit of their personal accounts from fire scenes.”
But, until he spent a morning in the midst of firefighting training, he never truly understood the monumental power a full-blown blaze.
Wright is a founding member of the Houston High-Rise Triad committee – an organization formed by the city’s fire chief to improve the responses of building occupants and responding firefighters. The group, a partnership between Houston building managers and the city’s fire and building departments, develops and recommends model high-rise, life safety action plans for both public- and private-sector facilities.
During the group’s monthly meeting in October, Wright and other members spent a morning at the Houston Fire Academy, where they participated in hands-on training in what is known as the “Burn Building.”
“You always teach people that you don’t have a lot of time to act when a fire breaks out,” he says. “But, until you’re in the middle of a fire, you don’t realize how quickly it does spread.”
Fire-safety training is paramount at all of Trizec Properties’ facilities nationwide. Wright and the company’s other life safety directors follow a program that includes training building personnel, building occupants, and the fire department. Wright oversees this initiative in seven high-rise buildings – two 50-story buildings, one 40-story building, two at approximately 35 stories, and one 20-story facility. The combined typical daily population is about 15,000.
The sealed environments of high-rise buildings create unique fire safety issues: Windows are sealed, and spaces are pressurized. Wright has spent much of his career studying significant commercial building fires and learning what accelerates them; which factors prove to be fatal; and what building personnel, tenants, and the fire department did right or wrong in each situation.
On a daily basis, Wright is involved in making sure that all Trizec building personnel respond safely to a fire alarm. This means making sure they understand how all building systems are supposed to work. “Take elevators, for example,” he says. “They should be recalled so people can’t ride them up to the fire floor. That leaves only the stairwells to use for an exit.”
The other element of this training initiative is making sure the building occupants understand what to do in case fire breaks out. Wright says a city ordinance requires building management to conduct training with building occupants. Tenants must specify an on-site “fire warden” for every 7,500 square feet of space within a facility. These individuals must be directly involved in the building’s evacuation plans, receive fire-safety training, maintain a list of people on each floor, and understand the appropriate evacuation procedures.
The fire wardens should be individuals who are on-site regularly, Wright notes. “First, look for their presence; and then look for the ability to create immediate leadership in an emergency situation,” he says.
The fire department is a third piece of the life safety puzzle. Through the Houston High-Rise Triad, firefighters have gained a greater understanding of the challenges posed by a fire in a high-rise building. “High-rise buildings present a special engineering challenge. They weren’t totally ignorant, but this forum gave us a chance to share a lot of information and helped them get prepared ahead of time,” Wright says.
The city now requires all commercial buildings to provide the fire departments with pertinent building information – how the elevators work, which floors they serve, whether or not the building is equipped with a fire pump, and more.
“We developed a program where the district chiefs do high-rise surveys,” Wright adds. “In Houston, we have an open-door policy. If the fire department wants to come in and walk crews through to familiarize themselves with the property, we always have the doors open.”
Robin Suttell (firstname.lastname@example.org), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.